Nationwide, student-led rent strikes have taken place at no less than 56 universities this year. They demonstrate that students, like other young people throughout Britain, are worried about affordable accommodation and quality of life. But to meet the needs of young voters, the party’s current pledge to abolish tuition fees is not enough. Instead, Labour should learn from rent strikes and student occupations to set out a new vision of what higher education, and life afterwards, could be under a Labour government.
According to The Complete University Guide the average cost for purpose-built student accommodation is £147 per week, and in London the figure jumps to £178. Astronomical rents force students into overdrafts and debt, but also precarious and exploitative work. It is clear Labour must offer something here.
The government’s failure to subsidise tuition fees and maintenance costs this year has exacerbated the student housing crisis, and alongside extortionate rents, poor quality accommodation, and a callous lack of support from universities, students have been unable to return to campus support networks. This has driven hundreds of students to withhold rent and occupy university buildings.
In Manchester, rent strikers are demanding a 30 per cent reduction for students in halls of residence this semester, alongside a £1,500 rebate for all students. Labour must support demands like this throughout the country and recognise that all students are entitled to compensation. Not as ‘customers’, but as real people who have endured financial exploitation with no support from the state.
But even if tuition fees are abolished and maintenance loans replaced with grants in the future, wider issues which concern students’ everyday lives will persist. For instance, the housing market is unlikely to become more accessible, and both property and public space is being consolidated away from young people and placed into the hands of private landlords and student housing conglomerates. To gain students’ trust, Labour must offer more than quick-fix economic solutions to these problems. Young people understand that in order to see the systemic changes they are fighting for in the housing market, education, and society more widely, a new vision for education must be set out in a way that goes beyond sticking plaster solutions.
The rent strikes have shown that students want an autonomous form of community on campus that is grounded in the democratisation of higher education. Fundamental to this is free tuition fees, but students also want to reclaim the university and what higher education stands for. Labour must support them by pledging to democratise universities, and promising substantial investment in both student and local community spaces.
Central is the need for Labour to deal with the consequences of an artificial higher education market that is propped up by loans which will never be repaid. This corporate shift in higher education has fundamentally changed the ‘student experience’, and studying should not be saturated with talk about value for money, summer internships, or being customers of education and clients of the university. Labour can recapture what education means and mobilise a positive vision of ‘studenthood’ that offers students a community currently under threat from for-profit higher education.
Labour must encourage learning for the sake of learning. Not buying a degree for a job that does not exist. Students come to university excited to live away from home for the first time. But whether they commute from home or live on-campus, students must be guaranteed the opportunity to form relationships and communities on their own terms. Labour can nurture this by listening to what students are demanding right now. In Manchester, a student occupation that ended this week sought leadership elections for top university positions, an end to police patrols on residential campuses, and no compulsory staff redundancies. Failing to meet these demands will lose Labour student support.
Student anger is palpable again as it was in 2010. But this time, student concerns go beyond tuition fees, the cost of living, and contact hours. These things matter, but dealing with them in isolation will not help. The party must offer a meaningful student experience that reclaims the university. Offer students a future that goes beyond jobs and growth. Offer students community and an experience that they will thank a Labour government for. Otherwise, they might just not forgive us.
Image: Student rent strike, 2016
Credit: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr